'The Worst Minutes of Our Lives': Tornadoes Rip Through Missouri

by | May 24, 2019 AT 7:30 AM

By Eric Adler

Hours before the tornadoes would actually strike, killing three people in Missouri, injuring at least 26, twisting up homes and lives, 40-year-old Charlie Brown on Wednesday had already scoped out a Joplin school as a shelter.

"Is it open?" people shouted to him. He checked the doors.

On this of all days -- May 22, exactly eight years after a ghastly EF-5 tornado ripped through Joplin, killing 161 of Brown's neighbors -- he was not going to get caught so vulnerable again.

At 6:30 p.m., he took refuge.

An hour later, a tornado would touch down just across the state line in Cherokee County, Kansas -- the first of five in the region that night confirmed by the National Weather Service.

Soon after, a tornado barreling northeast would sweep through Carl Junction, 10 miles north of Joplin. Forty miles to the northeast, a twister would strike tiny Golden City, killing a married couple in their 80s, tossing their bodies the length of two football fields, and taking the life of another woman who lay in debris from her mobile home.

Just before midnight, sirens would begin to wail through Jefferson City before EF-3 winds spinning at more than 136 mph would send residents of the state capital bolting into their basements.

"It's happening again," one man tweeted Wednesday before the sky turned violent. "Just like eight years ago. ..."

"Cripes! Today of all days," posted another.

Leona Rice, 74, whose right leg had been torn from her body at church eight years ago in the Joplin tornado, had just settled in to hear her preacher at the Carl Junction First Assembly of God Church begin his Wednesday night sermon when the tornado warning sounded.

They hunkered down. Children chattered. Some cried. The woman next to Rice, "she was just a basket case," Rice said. "She said, 'I'm just about to lose it.'"

Rice held fast. She prayed as she had prayed in Joplin. "I don't know," Rice later recalled, "maybe I'm a little weird. I just feel like it's in God's hands. Whatever will be will be."

The tornado roared past. "If I had a good arm and a stone, I probably could have hit it," Rice said. Residents were spared there and in Joplin.

At 9:30 p.m., 40 miles to the northeast, death came to tiny Golden City, population 750. The tornado tore the roof off of a bin at the MFA fertilizer plant. Authorities evacuated residents for a mile in every direction. Winds downed trees, swept away power lines like they were cobwebs. The twister left metal bent in heaps, trees flattened as if they were crushed underfoot. Clothes hung from branches stripped of their leaves.

Justin McIntyre's home had belonged to his grandparents, built by them more than 40 years ago. Winds exposed the inside to the open air. The barn was turned to rubble.

The bodies of Kenneth and Opal Harris, ages 86 and 83, would be found nearly 200 yards from their home. The body of Betty Berg, 56, was found outside her home. Her husband, Mark Berg, survived with injuries and was taken to a hospital in Kansas City.

Two more tornadoes would touch down in Jasper and Cole counties, said the National Weather Service.

Then at 11:43 p.m., more than 170 miles northeast of Golden City, a fifth twister hit Jefferson City and its 43,000 residents. It would cut a path of damage west to east, centered around Ellis Boulevard and U.S. 59.

The timing couldn't have been worse for the capital.

Earlier in the day, the city had issued a declaration of emergency and began closing roads and evacuating part of North Jefferson City in anticipation of severe flooding from the rains that had been pounding the state for days.

The first sirens had been activated at 11:10 p.m and reactivated at 11:40 p.m.

Emergency responders quickly organized. Calls poured in.

"Hawthorne Park got hit by a tornado," said a dispatcher on the Jefferson City Fire channel at 11:53 p.m. "They need units to respond."

Two minutes later, more rescue units were requested: "We're getting multiple calls. We have a lot going on there. From what I'm hearing we've got multiple people trapped."

At 11:56 p.m., emergency crews were sent to 17th Avenue: "We have someone needing medical assistance. Injured leg. Severe injured leg."

Responders had trouble reaching some areas. They improvised.

"Engine 4 to Jeff Central," came a call at 11:57 p.m. "We are headed to Hawthorne Parkway. We are unable to get through because a wall at the Y has collapsed into the driveway. We will be on foot."

It quickly became obvious the damage was severe. And widespread.

"We're blocked, power lines across the road," said a call at 11:57 p.m. " Roof is off. ... We're gonna have to find an alternate route. We're gonna have to get to the apartments."

11:59 p.m.: "We also are needing someone to respond to Capital City Apartments. We have a female that's trapped under rubble."

Seconds later, a report from the Hawthorne Park apartment complex: "There's concrete walls down; we've got power lines down across Ellis. Quite a bit of damage to this area."

Around midnight, reports of gas odors and hissing gas lines began coming in, along with calls for additional help.

"Can you do an all-call page to Jeff City Fire? Any available personnel report to the city."

At 12:06 a.m., fire department units around the city called in their reports. One was from Hawthorne Park apartments.

"I'm gonna say approximately one-half of the buildings or more have been hit. We have found one injury, a gentleman with a broken arm. He was out of the building. We have several people that just cannot make it out at this time."

At 12:08 a.m., a call came in about people trapped in an elevator at the Capitol Plaza Hotel and another building.

"Anything at this point that is non-emergency as in trapped or stuck in elevators, are going to the bottom of the list."

One minute later: "Did anyone respond to Best Western?"

"Issue at Best Western?"

"The tornado took the roof off. They have a female that's bleeding. They're talking about possible amputation."

Chandis Newell hadn't heard any tornado sirens when the Best Western started shaking at about 11:30.

The door to his third floor hotel room was jammed shut and he couldn't see anything out his window through the rain and wind. Out of options, Newell took cover in his bathroom to wait out the storm.

"I was legit scared, especially when I got in that bathroom," Newell said. "A lot of things were running through my mind: 'Is this place about to fall?' The building just wouldn't stop shaking."

After almost 10 minutes, he got out of his room. He helped other residents leave and turned to see the hotel's windows blown out, power lines toppled, vehicles damaged.

The emergency calls didn't let up.

At 12:15 a.m.: "A tree has fallen on a female's house and she's trapped inside."

12:25 a.m., East McCarty Street: "Tornado blew windows out, son's leg is openly bleeding."

As sirens screamed, Neftali Angel and his wife, Roxanna, took to their basements. Winds howled. Faline and Charmer, their Chihuahuas, shook.

"We were all shaking," Roxanna, 23, said,

"It was the worst minutes of our lives," said Neftali, 24.

Shingles, insulation and tree branches were scattered all over their Adams Street yard near the Capitol Region Medical Center. Parts of their roof lay on his neighbor's car. A wood shard jutted from the ground.

"I thought I was going to die," Jessica Wheatley said. "This is definitely Mother Nature at its worst."

She had awakened to debris pummeling her windows. Wind ripped up her outside deck. She huddled in bed, feeling trapped. Neighborhoods around Jefferson City were sights of devastation -- brick homes tumbled in piles, walls turned to debris, cherished family belongings broken, torn, blown away, couches, beds, living rooms left to open air and coming rains.

Police on Thursday morning reported no deaths in Jefferson City, but counted 25 injuries there and from surrounding Cole County, as 100 people took refuge in three shelters.

Many attributed the relatively low injury count to the early warnings. Two sirens went off, authorities said, one well before the tornado arrived in Jefferson City and another as it touched the ground.

"Maybe that's a good reason why there's so little casualties -- because people took cover ahead of time," said Cole County Fire Department spokesman Steve Cearlock.

Some 200 utility poles were downed between the capital and Eldon, which sustained damage some 30 miles east of Jefferson City.

Jay Schnieders went to his family's car dealership along Christy Drive early Thursday morning expecting to see some hail damage.

What he found was much worse. The tornado flipped numerous cars on top of one another at the Riley Toyota Scion and Riley Chevrolet Buick GMC, a dealership his great-grandfather started in 1936. Glass scattered the pavement from cars now without windows.

"I just can't believe it," Schnieders said. "It's just tossed around like toys out there."

He pointed to one car that was thrown about 100 yards. Letters were ripped from the red Toyota sign once attached to the building, leaving just a "T," "O" and slanted "A" hanging. Nearby power lines were slouched over, some touching the ground.

Schnieders estimated nearly 500 vehicles were damaged, likely totaling at least $15 million, but he would wait for the insurance agent to know better.

In the light of day, church board member Glen Gessley examined damage at the Community Christian Church. At 1 a.m., the pastor had called. Direct hit.

Broken glass covered the inside of the church, which opened in 1964.  Tree limbs lay strewn across the lawn alongside a chair from the sanctuary. Gessley suspected the damage was in the millions of dollars and wondered if the church could be rebuilt or would need to be bulldozed.

The pastor, he said, "wasn't exaggerating at all," Gessley said. "I don't think you get a more direct hit than this."

Rescuers with a search dog and a building inspector rapped on doors. The search dog, a black Labrador named Phavor, bounded into homes where stairs and doors were blocked by debris

Melanie Dickinson, 41, paced not far away, fielding calls from family members who were worried about her and her three children.

Dickinson had stood outside and watched the sky turn green before the tornado struck

"Once the train sound came," she said of the characteristic noise of a tornado thundering near, "I knew to take my ass inside."

She gathered with her family in a stairway with no windows and had them recite the Lord's Prayer. Once the winds died down, her 12-year-old son didn't want her to leave the house to check on neighbors.

Power lines crisscrossed her driveway and wrapped around her SUV. A mangled roof lay in her backyard. Like many others, she began to clean, knowing her problems weren't over.

Later on Thursday, Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin set a curfew between 9 p.m. Thursday and 5 a.m. Friday, a precaution frequently taken after tornadoes to reduce looting and keep residents out of dangerous areas. The storms are not over.

Experts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast severe thunderstorms, with the potential for tornadoes, through the Memorial Day weekend and at least through Tuesday, making the job of cleaning up all the more messy and difficult.

As a renter, Dickinson wondered where she would go.

"I don't know where," she said, "but we can't stay here."

Includes reporting by The Star's Laura Bauer, Katie Bernard, Jason Hancock, Katie Moore, Luke Nozicka, Glenn E. Rice, Kaitlyn Schwers, Crystal Thomas, Judy L. Thomas and Steve Vockrodt.

(c)2019 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)